The University

Founded in 1865 in former army barracks, Fisk is one of the smaller HBCUs in the country with an enrollment of less than 900 students. It is also one of the lesser known, not being a part of the famed Atlanta university consortium or possessing a football team which would participate in any of the highly publicized HBCU Classics. Fisk’s history is advanced by the inspiring story of the Jubilee Singers, the rich intellectual and artistic life of its former faculty and alumni and the several architecturally and historically significant buildings on its campus. Erected on the site of a former contraband camp at Fort Gillam, Jubilee Hall is the oldest permanent building for African-Americans in the U.S. and Cravath Hall houses murals by Aaron Douglas, a renowned figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Approximately 40 buildings were included in the original designation, less than half of which remain today. [1]

The Location: Jefferson Street & I-40

Fisk was established along Jefferson Street, described as “a wide footpath that evolved into a wagon road” from the local plantation to the Cumberland river in the antebellum years.[2] The school was rechartered in 1872 buoyed by the financial support of the Jubilee Singers’ tours and Jubilee Hall was completed as the school’s first permanent structure in 1876, with Jefferson Street directly behind it. Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School (later Tennessee State University or TSU) situated itself at the western edge of Jefferson Street in 1912. Meharry Medical College moved from South Nashville in the mid-1930s with Jefferson Street as its northern boundary. As Fisk, TSU, and Meharry emerged as anchors for Jefferson Street Mitchell describes the overall district as a “23-block area from Fifth Avenue, North, to Twenty-eighth Avenue, North” which came to answer the multiple calls of black life: religion, retail, and entertainment. 

Jefferson Street’s heyday (considered by some to be 1935-1965) follows the arc of many Black commercial districts across the U.S. Jim Crow laws forced proximity and collaboration and the tumult and promise of integration and the Civil Rights movement began to pull away at the fabric. Underlying this was the effects of redlining in the 1930s by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation which labeled the entire area as “D” for hazardous. 

Perhaps the biggest impact, however to Jefferson Street was the construction of Interstate-40 in the late 1960s. Despite resistance from a consortium of 40 community leaders self-named the “I-40 Steering Committee” which took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court, the Interstate continued as planned thereby decimating the district. According to Metro figures, 1,400 Nashvillians were displaced by the construction of I-40 and I-265 (which would become I-65). Houston writes that “the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of interstate would demolish a hundred square blocks” and lead to “the demolition of approximately 650 homes and 27 apartment buildings.” According to the Tennessee State Museum, the value of remaining housing dropped more than 30 percent. [3]

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map
Nashville maps

External Forces

Given the detrimental impacts to the Black neighborhood surrounding it directly prior to its historical designation could bring into question Fisk’s actions or inactions. A master plan created for Fisk in 2008 relinquishes decisions around Jefferson Street to the City of Nashville via the Jefferson Street Redevelopment District Design Guidelines. In a Master Plan approved in 2005 and amended in 2014, the City cited that “the revitalization of Jefferson Street through the enforcement of land use and design controls and the acquisition of land for redevelopment... will be important factors in the elimination of blight and the prevention of its recurrence.” In 2019, Fisk is among the HBCUs included in the “Nashville Consortium of HBCUs Creating Economic & Community Development Growth”. The Consortium’s strategic document, Collaborating Together for Sustainable Change, advocates for the health of the general North Nashville community, affordable housing, and the area’s seniors. The Consortium does not make any mention of preservation efforts for the Jefferson Street district despite groups like the Jefferson Street United Merchants Partnership fighting to sustain Black-owned and Black-serving businesses in the corridor.

Additionally, Interstate 40 has received a cursory treatment over the last decade, with a mural, increased lighting, improvements to the streetscape, and scattered markers describing what the Jefferson district’s heyday. This is in no small part due to how the State of Tennessee sees I-40 - as a significant contributor to the state’s infrastructure, providing transportation for Tennessee’s largest employers, high-volume couriers, and residents seeking out the state’s national parks.

Once could take a closer look at the Jefferson Street district and its evolving relationship to Fisk as opposed to just the architecture of the Fisk campus and easily identify additional sites integral to the Black cultural history of the area. Such an effort could paint a more diverse picture of Black life in Nashville through the decades and across class.

Frequent leadership changes kill growth ideas because new people bring new ideas and new strategies about setting the immediate priorities of each institution—maybe to one leader, growth looks like the total overhaul of an academic master plan; to another, growth may instead look like a total restructuring of the college’s leadership chart.


1. Mielnik, Tara Mitchell, "Fisk University Historic District" (2016). Nashville Conference on African American History and Culture. 32.
2. Mitchell Jr, Reavis L. "Leaders of Afro-American Nashville: Jefferson Street." Tennessee State University.
3. Hale, S. "History repeats itself in North Nashville." Nashville Scene (2018).
4. Gregory Brand, “,” Stay on The Go Nashville, February 23, 2017.
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